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Scrupulous, surgical and skeptical.

Hubert Butler.


DUBLIN: THE LILUPUT PRESS, 2014. 20 [euro].

HUBERT BUTLER IS A WRITER whose work is too little known outside Ireland. It is, therefore, much to the credit of Lilliput Press, and its publisher Anthony Farrell, that its thirty year commitment continues to assure Butler's work is put into print and remains available to a broad reading public.

Hubert Marshal Butler was bom in 1900 at Maidenhall, his family's home, situated on the banks of the River Nore in Bennets-bridge, County Kilkenny. He received an education typical of his class and era, attending Charterhouse and going on to St John's College, Oxford. Upon his father's death in 1941, he inherited the estate where he continued to live for five decades with his wife Peggy, the sister of theatre director Tyrone Guthrie.

Butler found his genre early in his writing life, keeping mainly to journalism and both formal and informal essays. Often his subject matter (as in the eponymous essay here) was intensely local, as Butler was always intimately involved with his Kilkenny environment. Like his forebears, he was actively engaged in innovative and careful husbandry of the land and its resources. Butler worked assiduously to revive the Kilkenny Archaeological Society and its work, and, as with so many of his varied undertakings, attempted to do so in evenhanded ecumenical ways, often a thankless task.

On the other hand, as a true cosmopolitan with a breadth of international experience, he was something of a rarity in the Ireland of the 30s and 40s. Butler had traveled extensively, most notably in the Balkans, and had acquired a detailed knowledge of the intricacies of religion, race, and language in that seemingly perpetually troubled part of the world. In the early days of World War n, he worked with a Quaker organization responsible for saving the lives of many Eastern European Jews.

Butler had a talent for writing the universal from the particular, taking on the large, intractable political issues of his day and making them relevant at home. He could also turn the telescope around, seemingly focusing on petty, insignificant subjects but then widening his lens. Today we would call it going global, a phrase which he may not have approved.

Butler's work, because nearly all in essay form, does not appear on many Irish Studies courses either within or outside Ireland, a sad loss. There could be few better guides to provide insight into the vagaries of what Richard Kearney, some decades ago now, monolithically called The Irish Mind.

The Appleman and the Poet contains essays listed under six headings--reports from pre-war Russia; postwar essays concerning Ireland, neutrality and postwar Yugoslavia; autobiographical pieces; those of genealogical significance; a section devoted to defining and discussing the nature of Irish Protestantism (a subject on which Butler wrote often and trenchantly) and a generous selection of Butler's reviews. The book begins with a poem--To the House of My Hosts in October--a tribute by the architectural critic, Maurice James Craig, dated 1948. The volume's closing essay is Butler's 1985 assessment of the importance of the separation of church and state in the United States. The occasion is the election of Ronald Reagan, and Butler intuits the higher levels of influence that the Christian Right will acquire in the years to come. The only minor flaw in the essay is that Butler predicts that, because of the advanced age of many on The Supreme Court at the time, Reagan will be able to appoint one or two conservative justices during his term of office. In fact Reagan was able to appoint three.

In his short but incisive introduction to the volume, Fintan O'Toole characterizes Butler as that quintessential Irish figure--the man in the gap--claiming that Butler occupies territory constructively located between cynicism and skepticism. O'Toole sees that skepticism as issuing productively from Butler's Protestant heritage which holds personal judgment "not just as a right but an absolute duty."

"No Petty People" takes its title from Yeats' oft-quoted line from his Senate speech evoking the Protestant lineage from Burke, through Swift, Emmet and Parnell. Written in 1955, during a quiet but dismal period for Irish Protestantism when most members of the minority communion in the Republic tended to keep their heads down and their mouths firmly shut, Butler's essay unpicks the damage that the Ne Temere decree wreaked on the Irish social structure --the collateral damage of the Catholic Church's defensive marital stance. Ireland, Butler reminds us, had a working tradition for mixed marriages which generally accepted that sons took their father's religion, daughters their mother's (with some adjustments made with an eye to inheritance laws). He also points to the grave implications of this dictum by Pius X for small and underpopulated communities where marital choice was limited. This essay is typical of Butler's work in its patient tracking of implications more fully than normally presented in the media or otherwise disseminated. His voice injects a measured "yes, but" into an established or seemingly exhausted argument, quietly demanding our full attention. He pricks our conscience against easy acceptance of the status quo.

Although some of Butler's reviews concern books one would expect to be of interest to someone of his background and experience--books on Swift, Yeats, Horace Plunkett--others are surprising choices. A review of Mary and Ellen Lukas' 1977 popular biography, Teilhard de Chardin, is a case in point. The Jesuit theologican and philosopher, the son of an Auvergne farming family, is a man whom Butler greatly admires. He discusses de Chardin's religious interpretation of evolution which was seen as a potential means of bridging the gap between religion and science. But de Chardin's works provoked powerful forces within Pius XII's church who obstructed the publication of his The Phenomenon of Man. Butler writes that the philosopher's attempts to resolve the differences between religion and science failed because they became impossible in a postnuclear world. Neither system, in Butler's estimation, could battle "with the ruthless cruelty of our time." Butler's review incidentally traces the path of the Humanist tradition at this time as he bemoans its being subsumed or sidetracked from its original tenets during this debate. Humanism as an alternate religion is not a development which Butler can tolerate.

In 1967, Butler founded The Butler Society, which has traced family members in every corner of the globe, and drawn them back to Kilkenny triannually for the hugely successful Butler Rally--a model for clan gatherings to come. The diasporic Butlers included one for whom an island off the Georgia-Florida coastline is named. Butler's 1970s essay occasioned by his visit there is spurred by his knowledge that his forebear Pierce Butler-Mease, who was married to the actress Fanny Kemble, owned a plantation there, which was built and maintained by slaves. The Butlers' married life in America was a mismatch, with Fanny finding the Philadelphia society in which they lived dull after the theatrical whirl of London. She never could accommodate to the idea that her husband's wealth derived from slavery. Fanny befriended the black population of Butler's Island and eventually published accounts of her experiences there, which were said to have altered Britain's allegiances during the Civil War. What makes Butler's essay more noteworthy, though, is the care he takes to point out where Fanny's accounts are overblown or inaccurate and also uses historical documents to show that Butler was considered to be among the better slaveowners of the district. The essay, nuanced to the end, poignantly notes the marital strife that slave-ownership caused in the Butler marriage--"A conflict of conscience can be a source of immeasurable tragedy." Fanny wrote in later life-- "Forgive me my dearest dear Pierce that I have bitterly cursed your existence." Here, as in so many instances throughout the book, Butler's probity and consummate fairness refuse him the possibility of simplification, and dissuade us from making that same error.

There is no hectoring in The Appleman and the Poet, because, although at times Butler can despair of the collective intelligence on a number of matters, he never for a moment doubts the quality of mind of his reader. Nor is he preaching to the converted, to use a suitable metaphor. To label his style subtle is to risk suggesting he resorts to the siken prose that can come too easily and be the undoing of an essayist. This is no bellelettristic effort, but rather evidence of the workings of a mind finely tuned to what is rank in injustice and squalid in bigotry. It is, finally, proof of the inestimable value of the life of the mind applied to the world around us and those who live in that world--both those with whom we interact daily in our own communities, and, by application, to those whom we will never meet but with whom we share that world and our humanity.

--Trinity College, Dublin
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Title Annotation:The Appleman and the Poet
Author:Mahony, Christina Hunt
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 2, 2015
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